March 2002's Author! Author!

Susan Vreeland
(Chosen by author, reviewer, interviewer, Nancy Mehl )

 
Accolades for Susan
By: Nancy Mehl, MyShelf.Com

My first exposure to Susan Vreeland came in 1999. The book review site I worked for, The Charlotte Austin Review, was approached by Susan's publicist with a request for a review. Her book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, sounded interesting, but perhaps a little "highbrow" for my tastes. However, I accepted the review. Along with the review came a note from my editor asking me to do an interview with Susan. I looked her up on the Internet, trying to get a little background information. What I found impressed me, but I wanted to read the book before getting into the interview.

I sat down with Girl in Hyacinth Blue - and didn't get up for a long time. The book wasn't just absorbing - it was an experience. Each chapter traced the path of a painting - the painting of a young girl. Each person was touched by the artist's work in a different way because, I believe, true art carries with it the power to become whatever the viewer needs to see. The story of Aletta Pieters made me cry. I remember her vision of the painting even now: .She looked up to it imploringly. "You think that somewhere girls actually live like that - just sitting so peaceful like?" To young Aletta, bruised, abused, and neglected by life, the painting was of something she couldn't find the strength to hope for.

Then came the interview. My answers were simple - basically the same questions I used for everyone I interviewed. Susan's answers were full of depth and thoughtfulness. Even in this form, she touched my life. I've told many people that Susan's words to me were an encouragement to look upon every literary venture as if it were a painting - something that shouldn't be released until it is a masterpiece. You know, in going back through my notes, I can't find that statement anywhere? Her encouragement to allow your work to gestate - to have patience while you perfect it, is in abundance. But the words I could swear she said…don't seem to be there.

Perhaps this is the mark of a great writer - the ability to make someone hear what they need to hear. Just as a painting allows you to see what you need to see. I heard - and I remembered.

I was working on a second interview with Susan when The Charlotte Austin Review was shut down due to my wonderful editor's illness. Someone told me about MyShelf.com, and before I knew it, I'd found another home. What to do with the finished interview? Susan and I decided to combine the first and second interview into one new one - and run it on MyShelf. We did that.

We e-mailed each other a couple of times - and then, The Passion of Artemisia was released. I contacted her with a request for a review copy. Days later, this beautiful book arrived. I put it on the bottom of my review pile - and waited. It had to be last - because I wanted to pick it up when there were no distractions. The day came. Everyone was gone. I sat alone in my writing room - and opened the first page. Several hours, and several tears later, I closed the book. Again, this was not just the reading of a book - but an experience. I was lost inside a world created just for me - for just that day. Anyway, that's how it felt.

What follows is the original interview I did with Susan for MyShelf.com in June of 2001, and my reviews of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia.

I am thrilled to highlight Susan Vreeland as the author of the month for March, 2002.

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An Interview with Susan
By: Nancy Mehl

MyShelf.com
June, 2001

(Nancy Mehl) GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE has been extremely popular. To what do you attribute the success of this novel?

(Susan Vreeland) The positive response to GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE has been a surprise, and a delight, to me. Perhaps many people have, in their own families, a painting or a hand-made item that means something to them. If so, they can imagine, like I did, the provenance of how that precious thing came to them, and how it has passed through many lives. Perhaps also, Vermeer represents calm and tranquility in our fast-paced lives. His work reminds me of Wordsworth's line: "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things."

(NM) Each chapter contains a different story that revolves around a painting. Was it easier or harder to write your novel this way?

(SV) I started by writing a pair of stories, which became the first and last. It wasn't until I was writing the fifth story that I began to conceive this as a little novel. Perhaps playing that game with myself kept me from feeling the formidableness of having a whole novel ahead of one.

(NM) Where did you get the idea for your novel?

(SV) That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, can survive natural catastrophe, neglect, and even mistreatment, has always filled me with wonder. Sometimes in museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a finely wrought page from a medieval illuminated manuscript toiled over by a nameless monk, or a primitive tool with a carved handle, I am moved to tears. The unknown life of the maker is evanescent in its brevity, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains. Likewise, paintings, especially those with people, move me, and feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? What was their relationship? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?

I've always envied writers whose novels gushed out from their own growing up, rich in ethnicity or place or history. Countering my complaints about my ethnic blandness, the lack of a ready-made family story, one of my writer friends said, "Go back further." All I had was a love for art, a Dutch name, and a trip twenty years earlier when, to my surprise, I passed through a village in North Holland named Vreeland. I had nothing more than that--except a library card, and uninterrupted days of solitude, two years of cancer treatment and recovery, during which I could imagine my way out of my uncertain circumstances, and imagine my way into Dutch paintings. They showed me a heritage alive with vitality and history and the endurance of beauty. They survived--and so would I. Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the Johannes Vermeer exhibition in Washington D.C., I felt a growing love for a people and a place I could call mine. All those brave Dutchmen fending off flood on their fragile, sunken land were my kinsmen. But those complaisant matrons admiring their jewels, married to ship captains trading in African souls were my kinswomen too. A girl crouching on a swept Delft street with her orange skirt ballooning out behind her like a pumpkin could have been me in another age. I felt Dutch! It was Vermeer who gave me my heritage. In him I saw my same reverence for items made by hand--by someone unknown to him. Vermeer, too, was a lover of the connotations and qualities of things in his own domestic life: the luminous variations of pale colors in a hand-dipped window pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a red Turkish carpet, the strong lines of a golden pitcher, a hand-drawn wall map showing where that ship captain sailed. Now the cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to add objects of my own imagination--a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl's new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting--and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had a start.

(NM) How have things changed for you as a writer since the success of GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE?

(SV) Oh my! Changes! The world has opened up for me. I suppose I can fully call myself a writer now. After a two-book offer from Viking/Penguin, I took a leave of absence from my 30-year career of teaching high school, and doubt that I will return. I'm discovering that one writing project leads into the next and the next. Penguin was very generous in giving me a 25-city tour for the launch of the paperback. I am always surprised when people in publishing or bookstore owners know of me. How I am regarded has shifted. It seems only a short time ago that I was entering story contests with a hopeful heart, and now I've been asked to judge one. Likewise, I remember not too far back that I was casting about for a person who might write an endorsement for GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE, and now I've been asked for such endorsements for at least eight new books. That keeps me busy reading, but that's wonderful. Now that I've begun to build a readership, I feel an obligation to study and learn more so as not to disappoint them in the next books.

(NM) Tell us about your upcoming projects.

(SV) My next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, chronicles the life of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women to make a significant contribution to art history. Raped by her father's colleague who had been hired to teach her perspective, betrayed numerous times by her artist father who instilled in her the passion for dramatic storytelling on canvas, tortured in a papal court in an attempt to cripple her fingers, unloved by an unfaithful husband in an arranged marriage, she succeeds in heralding a new age for women through her paintings of strong heroines, and learns to forgive her father and husband through the influence of a wise but unconventional nun. It will come out from Viking early in 2002, with a Penguin paperback to follow.

I am currently working on a collection of short stories in conveying imagined narratives in the lives of painters as experienced by a peripheral character: Monet as seen by his gardener at Giverny, Cezanne from the perspective of a little boy who throws stones at him and his painting, Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman's son in Arles just before the young man joins the French Foreign Legion. The peasant family in VanGogh's "Potato Eaters" comes to life and copes, or fails to cope, with another mouth to feed. Manet's longsuffering wife confronts one of his models with whom she suspects he has committed infidelities. Modigliani's twelve-year-old daughter, only a baby when he died, discovers his nature, her mother's end and her own grief when she sees an exhibition of his work. Other stories use entirely fictional artists. Again, a Viking/Penguin offering.

After that, I will return to my interest in Canadian painter Emily Carr in a novel called Cedar Spirit. Emily's early feminism and spirited independence equip her to take on the male art bastion of Paris in 1911, while her love of the British Columbia wilderness stimulates her to adopt a native spirituality, the reverse inclination of her Salish friend, a basketmaker who tries to be more Christian than the Christians.

(NM) Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

(SV) Perhaps here is the place to share a little essay I wrote at the request of Penguin Books which details my experience while writing GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE. It's called "The Balm of Creative Endeavor."

The Balm of Creative Endeavor

Art, I am convinced, can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days of treatment for lymphoma became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet's garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo's figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, Jan Vermeer's serene Dutch women bathed in gorgeous honey-colored light. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin. My conviction grew that art was stronger than death.

Vermeer painted only 35 canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived neglect, mistreatment, theft, natural catastrophe. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used. Imagining my way into the lives of the people who might have owned the painting through the centuries resulted in imagining my way out of my own dire circumstances. As the stories took shape, I thought less and less of what I was going through, and more and more of the characters, lives, settings and circumstances I was creating. Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal. Mine was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and remember me and be proud of me in some small way.

When I was hospitalized for a month for a bone marrow transplant, I hoped they'd give me a private room because I intended to read my manuscript aloud over and over to polish the sentences, and that would drive any roommate batty. Conscious that one's thinking determines one's experience, and in the spirit of Dag Hammaarskjold's statement, "The only value of a life is its content for others," I gathered uplifting quotes to put on the windowed door of my room, facing outward to benefit family and friends going to visit other seriously ill patients, and so doctors and nurses tending to me would have a positive thought right before they saw me. Quotes like Milton's "The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven," and Shakespeare's "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," vitalized me and readied me for writing.

I took my journal of affirmations, a big dictionary and a thesaurus, beautiful new nightgowns in bright silks and flowered satin, colorful earrings and scarves to wrap my bald head, CD's of classical music, Gregorian chant, and Jessye Norman's Spirituals in Concert including "That Great Gettin' Up Morning" to help me rouse myself, and that moving "There is a Balm in Gilead." And, of course, art books. These composed my "armor of enrichment" as I went to do battle with Goliath.

I put a little sign on my hospital window high above Los Angeles: "Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the windowsill of heaven and gaze upon the Lord. Then, with the vision in thy heart, turn strong to meet thy day." I wrote a love poem to my husband, and a Haiku series about my doctors and nurses. My Dutch characters became real to me and I loved them too. Nurses were amazed that I wasn't experiencing the horrible side effects predicted. Three times a day they shined a flashlight in my mouth to look for bloody sores. None there, folks! I had filled my mouth with love and beauty instead.

When I came home, I found myself drinking in the simplest things--the blessing of a refreshing breeze, the velvet texture of newly cut grass, a small child's lilting laughter. All the world seemed tender and rooted me in its loveliness. I embraced Henry James's writing advice to be a person upon whom nothing is lost. After recovery, my little book about people who lived their defining moments in the presence of a beautiful painting, as I did, has launched me into a new life. I am humbled with gratitude.


Reviews

GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland
MacMurray & Beck - 1999
ISBN: 1878448900 - Hardcover
Literary Fiction

Reviewed by: Nancy Mehl - for The Charlotte Austin Review (1999)
Buy a Copy

"She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father's, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms' lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her."

So ends Susan Vreeland's novel - GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE. Yet in this touching, beautifully written novel, the end is the beginning. The story revolves around a painting - but not just any painting. A possible Vermeer. There are thirty-five known Vermeers in the world. Could this be another? Each chapter is a story in itself. The single thread running through the lives of each person and each family, is an extraordinary painting of a young girl in a blue smock sitting at a table, gazing out an open window. The painting's backward journey begins with Cornelius Englebrecht, a mathematics teacher who is tortured by the fact that his father took the painting from the home of Jewish owners who were being rounded up and sent to German camps - and to their deaths. To him, the girl in hyacinth blue is a mirror of his own guilt. To Aletta Pieters, a girl whose life has been a nightmare of abuse and pain - she is the reflection of everything she can never be. And the life she will never have. 'She looked up to the painting imploringly. "You think that somewhere girls actually live like that - just sitting so peaceful like?"' To Magdalena, the subject of the enchanting painting - it is a picture of a girl whose father saw her only as the object of his artistic passion. Not as the beloved daughter she desperately wanted to be.

This is a novel that should be read slowly - inhaled deeply and experienced fully. It deserves to be kept in your possession as a valuable treasure. Susan Vreeland's writing reproduces the same kind of artistry found in the painting she writes about. GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE is a definite masterpiece.

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Nancy Mehl is the author of Graven Images and Sinner's Song.


THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA by Susan Vreeland
Viking Press - 2002
ISBN: 0670894494 - Hardcover
Literary Fiction / Biography

Reviewed by: Nancy Mehl for MyShelf.com
Buy a Copy

"At some times in our lives, our passion makes us perpetrators of hurt and loss. At other times we are the ones who are hurt - all in name of art. Sometimes we get what we want. Sometimes we pay for another to get what he or she wants." I looked at Palmira apologetically. "That's the way the world works." Artemisia Gentileschi from THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA

THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA is the story of Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. (1593-1653). The novel opens with Artemisia as a teenager. She has been raped by her painting teacher, a friend of her father's, but keeps the secret of the outrage because he tells her he loves her and promises to marry her.

Artemisia's father discovers the truth and files charges against Agostino Tassi. The young girl finds herself a participant in a papal court. Her cruel treatment at the hands of the court, the realization that her father's actions are not fueled by concern for her, but by his own selfish motives, and the release of her abuser, lead Artemisia to accept an arranged marriage to a stranger. However, she is grateful to leave Rome and go with her new husband to Florence, a city rich in artistic heritage.

Artemisia attempts to follow her passion - her painting - while hoping that she can also finally find the kind of love that holds no betrayal or pain. But is there room for both in her life? And what will be the cost if she follows her dream?

THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA is another masterpiece painted from the heart of its author, Susan Vreeland. Like GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE, Susan's previous novel, the reader is pulled into the dimness of the past and the existence of a world long gone. Susan breathes life into the shadows and brings Artemisia and those around her into vibrant and living color.

Reading a novel penned by this great talent is like stepping out of one existence into another. Losing yourself in the stories that Susan Vreeland paints is a breath-taking and wonderful excursion - one everyone who loves to read should experience.

THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA has my very highest recommendation.

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Nancy Mehl is the author of Graven Images and Sinner's Song.


Booklist
What Love Sees (1988)

Girl In Hyacinth Blue (1999)
This one has garnered several awards, and will soon be seen as a Hallmark Hall of Fame production.

The Passion of Artemisia (2002)
BookSense #1 pick for January / February 2002

She is busy at work on CEDAR SPIRIT and her collection of short stories.
 

For more information about Susan, her novels, awards and upcoming appearances, visit her web site at www.svreeland.com/. Don't miss reading her thoughts about the art of writing. In it she shares this from Guillaume Apollinaire:

"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We are afraid."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.
He pushed them.
They flew.

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